Give your shelf a treat this weekend with The Good City's Weekend Read recommendation. Author Sheila Kumar reviews White Magic by Arjun Nath. (A HarperCollins publication).
This book works on many levels. It's an account of a druggie in rehab, his third or fourth stint. It's the story of a boy trying to subdue the ever-present rage boiling inside him, a boy who grows up and sets up the rehab centre where our narrator is currently undergoing treatment. It's a series of excerpts of a life in progress, as well as a biography of a man who has given his life over to addicts in the well-founded hope of curing them once and for all. It is also the story of heartbreak like no other, of a person breaking his own heart and spirit, as well as the hearts of those around him.
It's also one heck of a moving book. The method and technique is direct, faintly sardonic but that doesn't stop the reader from getting wholly involved in the story of the unnamed narrator, a successful corporate lawyer in another life, and rooting for his de-addiction, or for Bhai who grows up to be Doc, the founder of Our Sacred land, the de-addiction centre. Nath's elegant style almost masks the horrors contained in his story. Both Doc and the narrator are prepossessing individuals and the reader is drawn to the good they see in both men.
The story constantly switches back to between the narrator's experiences at land, and the story of the volatile little boy Yusuf (named after his father's friend Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar) who adopts unto himself the nickname- serving- for- first- name Bhai. Bhai is quite the most appealing kid in fiction after Roy's twins Estha and Rahel; the reader fully gets the reasons for his inner violence and outer acting out of that violence, even as they warm to him. The reveal, that Bhai is the Doc we keep meeting at land, is artfully done, concealed in an innocuous sentence: 'Yasmeen, who is Doc's sister….' which is when the reader realises they have met Yasmeen, Bhai's sister, earlier in the tale.
We see how 'a glass of Chardonnay in the company of a friend becomes a bottle of Old Monk in solitude becomes a single spliff in the morning becomes several spliffs through the day becomes a line of smack chased only on weekends becomes two grams daily.' We see the tremendous strains put on a 'normal' family when one member is an addict, how parents and siblings learn 'not to invest endearments, laughter and tears in a relationship that remains always on the verge of bankruptcy.' We see a marriage going down the drain, drip by sad drip. We watch as the narrator (who comes by his cynicism honestly, he assures us, 'having been treated or healed time and again by a long line of physicians, shrinks, shamans, acupuncturists and other assorted leeches') slowly succumb to the seduction of hope. We read of the deep despair that dogs addicts all the time, how often in their lives they had screamed silently for lightning or another divine device, to strike them down, to take them away from the fear forever… and we choke with emotion. Then we read of an addict's mother begging Doc to 'take care of her daughter,' give her an injection that will be a painless release, and we choke again.
White Magic is a wrenching account. It is also genius because basically, the story is just another tale of an addict in rehab. And a near hagio of Dr Yusuf Merchant, the man who runs the rehab. Then again, passages like this stop it from becoming a hagio: 'Doc has an addictive personality, without ever having had a problem with substances, as do shopaholics, workaholics, and high-performance athletes. They too ignore their families, spend money they don't have, lie, feel inadequate, get depressed, and the only reason they're not in rehab with me….is that society says no to drugs and a resounding yes to shopping and working.'
This, says the blurb, is Arjun Nath's first book. One eagerly awaits the next.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin, Chronicles of a Clan (Rupa Publications) and the upcoming novel No Strings Attached (HarperCollins). This review first appeared in www.sheilakumar.in.